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BOOK REVIEW : Lively Humor, Insistent Message in 'Loose Canons' : LOOSE CANONS, by Henry Louis Gates Jr.. Oxford. $19.95; 224 pages

March 25, 1992|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The pun in the title of "Loose Canons" reveals something crucial about Henry Louis Gates Jr., an elegant partisan in the not-so-civil war over "multiculturalism."

His targets are the self-appointed guardians of the accepted texts of Western literature--the ossified academics, high-falutin' literary critics and vainglorious editors who serve as our cultural commissars--but his weapon is a stiletto wit.

Gates, an English professor and chairman of African-American studies at Harvard, has long argued that American arts and letters must open itself and its list of required reading to the work of writers of diverse colors and cultures.

And he has carried the struggle to the inner sanctum of the cultural elite; the essays and addresses collected in "Loose Canons" were first presented in the pages of the New York Times Book Review and the Voice Literary Supplement, the proceedings of the Modern Language Assn. and other temples of high culture.

The essential message of "Loose Canons," as Gates explains, is a plea for peaceful coexistence among contending cultures on a global scale:

"Ours is a late 20th-Century world profoundly fissured by nationality, ethnicity, race and gender," he sums up.

"And the only way to transcend those divisions . . . is through education that seeks to comprehend the diversity of human culture. Beyond the hype and the high-flown rhetoric is a pretty homely truth: There is no toleration without respect--and no respect without knowledge."

What makes "Loose Canons" such a lively read is the good humor that Gates brings to what is often a dry and deadly debate. At times, he engages in outright parody, as in "Canon Confidential: A Sam Spade Caper," which plays out the argument over multiculturalism in the hard-boiled prose of the pulp mystery novel.

"Something hard jabbed into my back.

"It was Jacques Barzun, a .38 Beretta resting comfortably in one hand.

" 'Standards, Mr. Slade. Do you know what standards are?' His menacing smile was perfect--probably practiced it in front of a mirror."

Even when he takes on his intellectual adversaries in "the new cultural right" on their own terms--with an impressive command of the necessary skills of name-dropping, phrase-making and scholarly allusion--Gates cannot resist the temptation to tell a war story or crack a joke at the expense of pomposity.

In an otherwise straight-faced essay ("On the Rhetoric of Racism in the Profession"), for example, he recalls how "a great literary critic" sat next to him at a lecture by Edward Said on the theories of "so-called Third-World critics" and asked Gates to indicate whether each of the critics under discussion was black or white.

"It happened so often during the talk that my colleague and I arrived at a convenient shorthand," Gates writes. "He would raise his eyebrows when he wanted to ask his questions and I would merely turn thumbs up or thumbs down, depending of course on whether African ancestry were involved."

Gates is willing to engage in the metaphysics of culture and the hermeneutics of high criticism, what he calls "the attempt of blacks to write themselves into being ."

But, again and again, he insists on bringing the whole question of race in American culture down to the here-and-now:

"It's important to remember that 'race' is only a sociopolitical category, nothing more," he writes. "At the same time . . . that doesn't help me when I'm trying to get a taxi on the corner of 125th and Lenox Avenue."

If the lively prose and insistent humor sometimes obscure the urgency of his message, Gates pauses to remind us that he is dead serious about the task at hand: the creation of "a civic culture that respects both differences and commonalities."

"The challenge of mutual understanding among the world's multifarious cultures will be the single greatest task that we face," he insists, "after the failure of the world to feed itself."

"Loose Canons" is an inside job, the work of a man who has mastered the arcane politics and encoded language of the canon makers; it's an arsenal of ideas in the cultural wars.

But it is also the outpouring of a humane, witty and truly civilized mind--and that's exactly why "Loose Canons" strikes so hard and so true.

Next: John Espey reviews A. S. Byatt, "Passions of the Mind" (Turtle Bay Books).

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